How to Study for the MCAT CARS

Hand bubbling in test answer to show MCAT CARS section

Of all the sections on the MCAT, the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) is most difficult for a lot of students. There’s something about the ambiguous MCAT CARS passages, the hard to decipher verbal reasoning questions, the seemingly too short time frame that causes test-takers a lot of grief. Prospective medical students have a natural affinity for the hard sciences, which makes the MCAT CARS a different kind of beast.

So what do you need to know about MCAT CARS? Here are some fast facts! The CARS section of the MCAT:

  • Tests critical reading and reasoning skills
  • Lasts 90 minutes
  • Contains 53 multiple choice questions, with four answer choices each
  • Has 9 passages of 500-600 words, with 5-7 questions each

With that in mind, here’s what you need to keep in mind to master the CARS section at home during MCAT prep and on the official exam!


 

Table of Contents


 

How To Study for the MCAT CARS

  1. Know what the CARS section is designed to examine. According to the AAMC, this section is designed to “test your comprehension, analysis, and reasoning skills by asking you to critically analyze information provided in passages”. You don’t need to take any special courses nor do you need any outside knowledge to do well on this section because everything you need will be contained in the passage. The content of this section encompasses both the social sciences and the humanities and is basically just a test on how well you can think critically about what you’ve read and how well you can reason, both within a passage, and beyond it.
  1. Become a better reader. The best way to do this is to read more. Everything from books to magazines is good material to build up you stamina. Remember that the CARS section will not contain passages pertaining to the natural sciences. So burying your nose in volumes of pharmacology won’t result in vast improvements to your critical analysis skills for the MCAT. Read things that are thought provoking and that will challenge you to form an opinion.
  1. Practice this section every day. When you set your study schedule commit to doing CARS passages every day. Even if it’s just one passage, reading the passages and answering questions will build stamina and improve your analytical skills over time. If you do nothing else to prepare for the CARS section, be sure to do this. When it comes to this section especially, repetition is the golden ticket to making all of your MCAT dreams come true. Over time you will learn how to approach MCAT-type questions, improve your reading speed and comprehension (and your insight!), and most importantly you will notice an improvement in your score. Throughout each section of the MCAT, “application of information” is a major theme. The test-makers want to see how well you can take a piece of information, analyze it, and apply what you’ve learned to a practical situation. You won’t learn to do this by reading alone. You have to actively work on polishing this skill. The best way to do this is by doing practice passages. Our online Magoosh MCAT course includes 36 CARS passages with 212 accompanying practice questions!
  1. Learn to decipher the author’s tone. The biggest “secret” on the MCAT CARS is figuring out how the author feels. Are they encouraging or condescending? Are they serious or light-hearted? Are they trying to persuade you or are they rehashing Elizabethan literature? Knowing where the author stands on a given topic is important–and you can get there by looking for specific words. Answering questions that test your reasoning will require this bit of knowledge. As students of science, this may be difficult at first. But start out by looking for context clues. For instance, in a passage about 90’s fashion, whether the author referred to overalls as “fascinating” or ‘’ridiculous” would make a difference to how you would approach the question set. So when you read, either for leisure or for MCAT prep, think about why the author felt strongly enough about the topic to sit down and write about it. Next, think about how the author wants you feel about what they wrote.
  1. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. How to review MCAT CARS materials? Stick with the tried and true! A lot of students become so focused with practicing and creating foolproof strategies to ace the CARS section that they forget that they already know how to read. Trust that skill. Don’t try to incorporate too many different reading strategies (like speed reading or skimming). The best way to read on the MCAT is to read the passages like you would read anything else. You will find that a lot of the information you need to know from a passage will come to you naturally—even without the facts and figures to confirm your findings.

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MCAT CARS Strategy – Do’s and Don’ts

  1. DO remember that each passage is telling you a story. Many students approach this section defensively. What I mean is that they read each passage with a critical eye just waiting to be bamboozled. Think of how many times you have to reread something when you’re distracted. This section is no different. When you read a passage, read it as if you are reading the first page of a new book—without expectations. Read it as if you are reading for informational purposes only. Don’t cloud your already anxious brain by trying to pick out words and phrases or by trying to skim through the passage.
  2. DON’T skip around. As we all know, time is a luxury on the MCAT, and MCAT CARS time is also scarce. Don’t waste that precious time by skimming passages to decide which ones are easy or hard. Complete the passages you are given in the order they appear, with their series of questions. If you have time at the end, then you may come back. That said, I’d like to add an additional point. When I was in the first grade I struggled with math. I would always get my tests back and tell my mom “I had the right answer, but I changed it,” to which she would reply “If you think long, you think wrong.” I’ve found that this little nugget of advice holds true for the MCAT too. When we are unsure about an answer, our first guess is usually the right guess. When we go back to make a chance, it’s often because we’ve talked ourselves out of the right answer and into one of the wrong answers. Don’t do this. Only change an answer if you’re completely certain that you know the correct answer. Even when we guess, we’ve most likely picked our answers for a reason, so trust your reasoning skills.
  3. DO keep track of your time. Like I mentioned before, time is of the essence on the MCAT. CARS passages seem to drudge on forever; these are difficult passages. Needless to say, it’s hard to focus your attention on a passage you find uninteresting. But it’s important not to get hung up on the content. Read the passage and then answer the questions and move on.
  4. DON’T think that you can’t improve your CARS score. I am a firm believer that the MCAT is a test that students can prepare for. The key is preparing effectively. Don’t waste time trying to outsmart the test. Prepare by reading, doing practice passages, and even practicing vocabulary words to give your comprehension skills a boost.
  5. DO read for pleasure to prepare for the CARS section. One of the best ways to prepare for this section is to practice reading. You don’t want the only time you see long passages to be in MCAT prep material. Keep in mind, however, that the operative word here is “pleasure”. Don’t read with the goal of learning new information, read for entertainment–even popular culture material can reflect the content of the passages you’ll see on test day in some ways. Believe it or not, you will pick up on new words and phrases, practice forming opinions, and have the opportunity to reason beyond the text.

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MCAT CARS Practice

Ready to try your hand at the CARS section? Here is a sample MCAT CARS questions (complete with MCAT CARS practice passage) to see where your skills are—and what you can do to boost your score before test day!

  • When you encounter a CARS passage on the MCAT, it’ll have more than one question associated with it. Once you’ve tried out the one above, come back and try your hand at Question 2 and Question 3!
  • Want even more CARS practice? Find it and more with a free Magoosh MCAT trial!

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FAQ

Can I cram for CARS?

 
Unfortunately, no. How to study for CARS on the MCAT? Slowly and surely. The reason so many students struggle with this section is because it requires a certain level of intuition that is uncomfortable for the typical pre-med who enjoys facts and formulas. Unfortunately, the CARS section is not something that you can cram for, but you must prepare for it over time. The good news is that with the right MCAT CARS strategy and lots of practice you can conquer the CARS section just as well as the other sections of this exam.

Overall, the MCAT CARS may seem like a beast at first, but by following these tips it’s totally possible to improve your score and do well.

What are CARS passages and questions about?

 
Within this section, you’ll see content divided 50/50 between passage content about the humanities and social studies. Within the text questions, you’ll see the following category breakdowns for question types:

  • Foundations of Comprehension (30%, around 16 questions)
  • Reasoning Within the Text (30%, around 16 questions)
  • Reasoning Beyond the Text (40%, around 21 questions)
How is the MCAT CARS section scored?

 
Just like the other MCAT sections, the MCAT CARS score ranges from 118 to 132, on a curve.

Where can I find more MCAT study resources?

 
If you’re looking for MCAT study resources more broadly, our online MCAT course at Magoosh now has over 700 practice questions and over 300 lessons! Sign up for 6 months, 12 months, or begin with a 1-week trial. You can use Kat’s 2-month study plan as a guide to the course.


 

A Final Word

When you’re studying for CARS, the type of question and passage you’ll encounter is different from anything else you’ll see on the MCAT exam–and that goes far beyond just the content and the writing style! Using the above MCAT CARS strategies, you’ll gradually increase your understanding of this type of passage…and see the changes reflected in your MCAT scores. Good luck!

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Author

  • Kat Thomson

    Kat is the Senior Curriculum Manager at Magoosh with a specialty in the MCAT. She has a BA from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a Ph.D. in medical sociology from the University of California, San Francisco, where she earned the Distinguished Dissertation Award in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Kat has been teaching premed and nursing students since 2005 as a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of San Francisco, Bowdoin, and the University of California, Berkeley, while collaborating on multiple research projects and publications. In addition to the MCAT, Kat has taught courses in Research Methods, Gender, Global and Environmental Health, and others. She is passionate about increasing the number of underrepresented minorities in medicine and helping students get into the medical schools of their dreams. You can join Kat on Instagram and YouTube.